December 17, 2004
I love Late Menuhin

Happy is the classical music fan who adores a musician who used to be adored by millions but who has now gone out of fashion with younger listeners. Everything is available on CD (as an after-echo of the man's huge popularity) but it is now available second-hand for next to nothing.

MenuhinBandW.jpgI give you: Yehudi Menuhin.

Correction. The orthodoxy now seems to be that Early Yehudi Menuhin is (and remains on CD) very fine, when his violin technique was faultless. However, this kind of technical fineness is now ubiquitous, and now recordings are better, so ... Late Menuhin, however, is not fine at all, because his violin technique was suddenly not faultless. And he even became one of those sad instrumentalist/conductors, who conducted because he couldn't play properly any more.

I don't go along with any of that, other than the bit about the fineness of Early Menuhin.

On the strength of Early Menuhin genius, and at a time (the 1930s) when 1930s recording quality was all there was, a whole generation of adoring fans bought everything he did, then and later, and either liked the later stuff also or were disappointed. But they bought it. Then they started to die off, and now those unfashionable Late Menuhin CDs languish in cardboard boxes in the market for a quid or two each.

For me the Menuhin experience really began when I listened to a Late Menuhin (1970) recording with Wilhelm Kempff of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, in A major opus 47.

I don't usually like pieces for only violin and piano. I realise this is not a very elevated thing to say, but when I listen to such pieces I think: What is this for? What is it saying? The point being that it had better be saying something, because the actual sound of the thing is so dull. Piano trios now, with all those luscious chords, they're completely different. Ditto most violin concertos. Ditto almost all piano concertos. They sound great. Piano trios and violin concertos and piano concertos sound so great that they can often say nothing at all for all I care, other than: hey listen to this! But a piece for violin and piano has to really say something to me, or I'm not amused. (I find violin and piano music dull in way that I do not find either either solo violin music or solo piano music boring. Why is that?)

Please do not confuse this with objective critical description of actual music. I am trying to describe how I feel about these things. If you feel differently, do not be affronted, just a little bit baffled, and you might even want to stop reading this. Because, above all, I do not want to persuade you that you dislike the sound of a violin sonata even if you actually like it. I would hate to give you a dose of false consciousness.

MenuhinKempffBeet.jpgAnyway, this is where Late Menuhin comes in. Late Menuhin was, for me, the supreme master of using his violin to actually say things. Every note he plays has a meaning, an emotional charge of some kind. And what is more: a good one, the right one. That Kreutzer sonata performance with Kempff amazed me with its total eloquence, quite unlike anything I had ever heard before when listening to this piece in other hands.

What I love about Late Menuhin, whether violin playing or conducting, is that, faced with a world in which he must suddenly live within technical limits (unlike in his glorious youth), either his own or of the other musicians he must now make do with, his response was not merely to try to correct those technical limitations as best he could (which I am sure he did do his best to do), but also into making every note mean something. Even more than Early Menuhin did. In his youth, Early Menuhin was often (it sounds to me) content to let the music just flow through him, with no technical friction, so to speak. There was no added value (in modern business parlance) but, wondrously, there was hardly any subtracted value either (apart from what the old recording subtracts). Which is how most of the current generation of musicians all try to play also, often very successfully. Perfectly oiled and perfectly functioning music machines, you might say. Personal hi-fi kits. But when, for Late Menuhin, the friction suddenly cut in, he had to live with it, but made damn sure that he always always always, every fraction of each passing second, added something. That's how it sounds to me. His playing became a triumph of eloquence over technique.

For me, Late Menuhin was the Laurence Olivier of violin playing. But whereas Olivier often got on my nerves by imposing his own rather bizarre meanings upon something which already, automatically, means something, namely words, Late Menuhin imposed much better and thought-through meanings, based on a lifetime of excellent music making and musical study, upon something that has no such automatic meaning in the way that words do, namely … music.

When I listen to Late Menuhin playing something like the Mendelssohn violin concerto, I realise that nice though that usually sounds, that too can often mean very little, when many others play it.

The most extraordinary case of a Late Menuhin triumph that I have recently heard is the Late Menuhin recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto.

As I have written here before, this is an extraordinarily difficult piece to bring off.

Two things tend to go wrong with modern perfect-machine performances of this extraordinary piece. First, because the thing is so ferociously difficult to play, and because the idiom (as with the Mendlessohn concerto) is so culture bound and elusive, the perfect machine player, time and time again, does actually introduce a lot of friction. And second, that plunges our poor perfect machine musician into a world he is utterly unused to.

To switch metaphors, the modern musician functions like a perfect window, or tries to. He stands between you and the music, and his idea is to let you see the music perfectly, through him. When this plan goes wrong, his usual recourse is ferociously, even desperately, to clean the window. Which is often counter-productive. Any meaning he may have detected gets lost. Windolene gets all over everything. Blah blah blah. Mess.

Late Menuhin is quite familiar with these dilemmas, because he lived with them every day. He did his share of window cleaning, but what he would also do was, as it were, talk about what you could just about, okay, see through the window. Yeah yeah, sorry about the window, but never mind, look at that, he would say, at that little house next to the trees, with the late blossom on. Look at this tiny wisp of smoke here, these clouds, the strange light at this time of day. And look, there's a storm coming. Through those bigger trees? See it? I'm right you know. (Smile.) A Late Menuhin performance is like a permanent running commentary on the music he is playing.

For my money (which as I say doesn't need to be much) Menuhin's playing is technically adequate, given the extreme excellence and fascination of the commentary that always accompanies it.

To speak thus of commentary is probably not quite right, because it suggests an imposed meaning rather than a meaning found within the music, but this is the best I can do for now.

MenuhinElgar1.jpg    MenuhinElgar2s.jpg

That Late Menuhin Elgar performance, with Sir Adrian Boult, is now almost universally denounced (and thus now seemingly unavailable – I can find no suitable link to it) as not nearly as good as the early one by Early Menuhin with Elgar himself conducting. And this Late Menuhin Elgar recording is a supreme example of all of the above. (By the way my picture of this earlier recording is the Naxos redo, which seems to be somewhat preferred to the EMI version, and is the one I have.)

I had spent decades obeying the critical orthodoxy about this (see what I mean about critics muck you about if you let them) by carefully not listening to it. But following a series of good experiences with Late Menuhin CDs, I finally came upon a second hand version for next to nothing of the Last Menuhin Elgar. And when I finally did listen to it, I loved it. Loved it. Late Menuhin doesn't always play things exactly as he wants to. But you always know how he is trying to play it, and how he is trying to play it is utterly marvellous. That's how it sounds to me. It's somewhat like a great but rather elderly actor doing Hamlet.

(By the way, I rather think that I first heard snippets of this Late Menuhin performance of the Elgar Concerto on a Radio Three Record Review comparison of all the various versions of the Elgar Concerto in which the reviewer hinted at a similar attitude to Late Menuhin to the one I now have. Can't remember who that was.)

I also love Late Menuhin's conducting, and buy everything of that I can get hold of cheaply. But let that wait for another posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
Category: Classical music